The Opening Scene from the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film, "Pulp Fiction"

Behind each shot of every scene has a purpose to the whole film.  And in every angle, psychology and meaning may establish relationships of characters, or personalities, showing different perspectives as the plot unfolds and evolves.   The camera may also at times become another character through its movements, which may portray vividly the emotions of characters, or accurately point out the direction of the story if it is done effectively.  Thus, analyzing the shots, angles, and camera movements in a scene sequence analysis is an effective and unique technique to understand and experience films.   On a whole new level, this approach makes one see how the filmmakers tell the story through each of their shots and on how they put these shots together in a scene or sequence.  Each dimension of the sequence is crucial in the understanding of the entire film.  Be it on the placement of the characters in the frame, or in the way the characters are lit, these elements of the mise en scéne may already show the audience what kind of movie it is that they are watching, which is somewhat the true power of what makes cinema real and its narrative cohesive.  Analyzing how the scene is filmed, edited and how the score intensifies the emotional significance of the story, unravels the meanings that build up the entire film.
On different levels, it is true that the director’s vision and creativity can be measured by the effectiveness of the way the story is told audio-visually.  This is in terms of how the script is translated into visual images and sound when filmmakers creatively put together visual elements to bring a response from its viewers and to convey meanings in different ways through cinema’s medium specificity.  Thus, scene sequence analysis is an approach to survey such elements in order to analyze and understand the scenes that make up the whole film.  This analysis also includes the concept of Mise en scène, which is a French theatrical jargon meaning, “placing on stage.” It refers to the arrangement of all the visual elements of a theatrical production.  These elements include the sets, lighting, props, and choreography of the characters as they perform on stage.  And such elements support the plots that lead to the creative integration of the whole play. 
On the other hand, mise en scène in films is similar but it involves other elements like cinematography, music, sound design, and the editing of the shots that make such an analysis more complex.  Each of these elements, if devised and made correctly during the preproduction stage, and if put together creatively and effectively in the production and postproduction stages, may show the viewers the intended emotion and idea that comprise the whole masterpiece.  Scene sequence analysis goes into the details of every shot and identifies how a particular shot contributes to the whole scene, leading to a deeper understanding of the whole film.   Giannetti explains that “space is a medium of communication” (78) and this is very true in film in light of the frame.  Cinematic mise en scène analyzes four distinct formal elements, these are: “the staging of the actions, the physical setting and décor, the manner in which these materials are framed, and the manner in which they are photographed” (Giannetti 51).  These formal elements sum up a number of complex elements, which can easily identify emotions, relationships, and ideas enclosed within a frame and movement.   And therefore, in the analyses of these elements in the frame of every shot, one may be able to carefully point out and confirm the meaning of the actions of the actor.
            Furthermore, by using scene sequence analysis, one can foster a deeper understanding of films on a variety of levels.  On a thematic level, the identification of meanings in the scenes may easily be established if such an analysis is utilized.  The analyzer may be able to comprehend the theme of the film by analyzing and extracting the meanings in the components of every shot.  Giannetti also points out fifteen components of a shot, among which include composition, form, framing, depth, character placements, and proxemics (96-98).  These components, if analyzed carefully in a film, can reveal the theme of the film in a particular scene.  For instance, by analyzing the tightness or looseness of the framing of the characters, the analyzer may be able to gauge what is really going on in a scene.  The spatial language can show the power of relationships between the characters that would shed light to the plot and direction of the story.  On the other hand, the distance between characters may also show the degree or strength of their relationships.  The position of the characters and the manner it was photographed also show what kind of character it is that the actor is playing.  The psychological undertones are a big hint to what theme the movie is heading into just by judging these components.  Charlie Chaplin, as quoted by Giannetti, sums it up by saying, “Long shot for comedy, close up for tragedy” (89).  This is actually quite correct because capturing a character with intense emotion in a close-up is very effective, considering that the viewers can identify more with the character’s feelings compared to a bird’s eye view or a wide shot. 
            In addition, one can also foster a deeper understanding of films on a technical level through scene sequence analysis.  In consideration of the choreography of these visual elements, these may aid the analyzer and even a filmmaker to learn about the production processes that are involved in making a good film.  The approach can easily help the filmmaker decide what shot to use or how to use the camera effectively to convey the intended emotion or idea, or to effectively communicate the message to the viewers.  If one is adept in film production, one may be able to apply this approach by successfully executing the coverage the film needs, break down every single requirement for each shot, effectively capturing and editing from performance, photography to sound, with the understanding that each of these elements is integral to the whole story and the final cut. The analysis gives the filmmaker a concrete idea on how to use these visual elements to reinforce and build the whole story and the characters’ qualities. Cinematographers like Roger Deakins, who is a master of shadows and silhouettes, essentially do not just shoot beautiful pictures.  Their pictures capture the profundity that these films require in respect to the sacredness of the story. 
            Using the science behind scene sequence analysis, a cinematographer may employ his or her expertise to aid the director in setting the camera in the right angle, movement, and shot to transform such meanings and ideas effectively and creatively.  This is because she or he, as masters of light and of frames, would know the psychological undertones and the meanings of the shots, framing, and angles when they use them at the right time.    To be a good director of photography, one should know when to use a close-up or a wide shot, or the right aperture for the right scene, with the proper chemistry with the director of the film.  The Hungarian- Jewish film critic, Béla Balázs, points out that “close-ups are often dramatic revelations” and they express “the poetic sensibilities of the director,” (315) which is quite true whichever genre of film one may go into.  For instance, the cinematographer and director can show the nature of a character, the physiognomy of a face, an intention, mood, or an emotion in a plot just by showing a close-up of a devilish smirk of an antagonist, or the teary eyes of a damsel in distress.  An effective filmmaker captures and edits into the requirements of the scene these expressions that are significant to the whole narrative of the film. 
            To clarify the effectiveness of this approach, let us look into the opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.  This 1994 award-winning black comedy is an interplay of interesting characters in intersecting relationships and storylines. The images are captured through the lens of the cinematographer, Andrzej Sekula, and edited by the late Sally Menke. Before the scene kicks off, a dictionary definition of “pulp” is shown for a few seconds to let the viewers grasp the title of the film, which brought a little bit of enigma to the direction of the movie and draws the audiences’ curiosity. The opening shot reveals two characters in a coffee shop having an attention-grabbing discussion over breakfast.  Pumpkin played by Tim Roth, and Honey Bunny by Amanda Plummer, continue their conversation in a subtle tone.  And the scene flows smoothly with the sweetness exuded by these characters in light of their intimacy as a couple and despite the crass language. 
The scene was shot simplistically and the shots are put together realistically, showing a regular blue-collar couple discussing the pros and cons of a robbery.  The psychological undertones in this scene are visible in their intimate portraits in the shots.  And what is great about this scene is that it is the prologue of the film, which at the same time is a continuation of the epilogue.  With such a powerful beginning, Tarantino uses this to lead the ending to a bigger bang and somewhat changing the nonlinear terrain of independent cinema that gained him and Roger Avary an Academy for Best Original Screenplay.   
Most of the shots in this scene are medium close-ups - closely framed to establish points of view and intimate portraits of the characters. As their discussion progresses, one may sense the Bonnie and Clyde's aura behind them, which is clearly established as the scene ends when the couple agrees to rob the coffee shop.    After the couple kiss, Pumpkin puts the revolver on the table and Honey Bunny takes out her gun to rob the coffee shop.  Pumpkin rolls out like a professional as he calmly yells their intentions, while Honey Bunny breaks out like a trigger-happy psychopath ready to blow up someone’s head. 
            In the last few seconds of the film, the shots clearly define the relationship of the couple.  With quick cuts from one medium close-up to another, a cutaway of the gun placed on the table, and the meeting of the two characters in a close-up of their lips, kissing passionately, Sekula establishes the close partnership in the crime of Honey Bunny and Pumpkin.  As the two characters stand up, the camera follows the two harmoniously, tilting into parallel composition, which also shows how like-minded these two interesting characters are.  Tarantino did not put any music in this scene but ends it with his trademark music as the opening credits hit the freeze-frame of the couple, pointing their guns in the same direction. 
            In this 5-minute sequence analysis, one can prove that this formula or approach works as one tries to understand the film in a deeper level, in line with how the camera tells the story and with other audio-visual elements.  It is as if one can see how Tarantino’s mind works as he tells these odd but interesting stories beautifully.  However, this type of film analysis may only work for this kind of genre - a weakness that an analyzer could consider.   Scene sequence analysis may only work depending on the kind of film that the analyzer is analyzing.  Perhaps it could not work with films that are using actual footage, such as documentaries and cinema vérité.  It could probably work even if it is an avant-garde film, depending on the artistic inclinations of the director. However, if directors do not follow the standards of filmmaking to tell their stories in a unique or weird way, scene sequence analysis may not accurately define the meanings of the shots or the offbeat mise en scène; thus, such an analysis may not be able to accurately define the psychology of its proxemics. The placements of the characters or the camera might be tailored differently to tell the story differently, which may boggle the minds of the audience.
 Scene sequence analysis also probably won’t work with most films made in the early history of cinema because most of them were shot in wide and film language was still not that developed; film technology and culture were still evolving when they were made.  In retrospect, films of Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers often used cinema as somewhat like a stage performance.  Unlike recent feature films, filmmakers back then were not able to use their tools effectively and with greater disadvantages.   Hence, such an analysis could only work in films made in the past few decades when technology and filmmaking techniques were already firmly established.  In some respect, scene sequence analysis may not be utilized in some experimental films, like some from Stan Brakhage, because they are designed to reach into meanings, which may confuse or show the opposite of an idea.  Take for instance some of the works of David Lynch, which are sometimes off but are well received by their audiences, due to their creativity, the profundity of the narrative, and mysteriously artful visual images and sounds. 
Still and all, having the knowledge and skill to use scene sequence analysis is a very strong foundation to film criticism and filmmaking, a solid pedagogical tool to understand cinema.  It makes one think deeper and appreciate films more. 

(c) Nich L. Perez, CSC   2019

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